The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” is often used by conservatives to decry racial double standards. And I think that in America, at least, this is true – we must not give blacks or hispanics a “pass” on their behavior or their failure to achieve as though they are somehow handicapped by their race. It’s probably not their race. It’s their culture. Which group historically has a culture of high regard for academic tests? Think of Chinese mandarins, a tradition that dates back fourteen hundred years. Kind of logical for Asians to be doing the best on educational standards, ain’t it.
However, it’s appropriate to judge things fairly, by standards that make sense. It’s annoying when modern people look back at their ancestors and judge great men like Thomas Jefferson as scum because “He owned slaves!” – rather than judging him against his culture and the social norms of his time. In that example, you have to weigh the modern judgement that involuntary servitude is a Great Evil (and it is!) against the cold, hard fact that slavery is an institution as old as agriculture, at the very least, and that at the time of the American Revolution, abolition was only just starting to sweep into the American colonies from its origins in the Roman Catholic Church. (That’s right. America’s current slave-free condition is due to THE POPE. Mwahaha.) The whole freedom-of-the-individual thing was only just starting, and to expect the great men of that era to hold to modern sensibilities is not only dumber than bricks, it’s also fundamentally unjust and betrays a willful ignorance of history. That doesn’t mean that TJ wouldn’t have been a better man if he hadn’t owned slaves; it just means that to utterly condemn him for doing so is unjust.
The same thing is true for Nelson Mandela. He was a terrorist with blood on his hands… and, quite possibly, the best black leader “modern” Africa is capable of producing. He was far from a perfect man, and when compared with the greatest historical leaders of the Anglosphere, he falls far short. But their world – our world – is not and was not the world that he had to face. The world that he had to face was Communist-infested Africa, a continent of barbaric savagery, genocidal dictators, and endemic corruption. Basically, Hell on Earth.
And for all its flaws – and they are legion – South Africa is better off than most other African nations. And Mandela was a key player in making that happen; if we want to see the people of Africa progress towards civilization, we need to reward with our praise those who make significant steps toward that goal. Mandela did not face a civilized people in a civilized nation surrounded by other civilized cultures the way great leaders like George Washington, Gandhi, and MLK did. He faced savagery and barbarism, and succeeded to behave in a civilized manner in many ways where others not only failed, but never even made the attempt.
To understand him for what he was, we need to also understand his context. He was no saint – and the country he did so much to shape is no First World paradise. But he could so easily have been a lot worse. For all his flaws, I suspect Mandela was one of these:
The fact is that there are relatively few members of any society who are capable of helping it advance or develop civilization in the first place.
And that’s worthy of recognition.